Continents of Exile Summary
In Continents of Exile, Ved Mehta has set himself the task of remembering and interpreting his life. In the seven volumes published before 1994, he examined his own development up to his graduation from the University of Oxford. Mehta’s quest for self-understanding is also an introduction to the several different cultures through which Mehta has passed. From childhood Mehta has been an outsider seeking to understand worlds of which he is not fully a part. The loss of his eyesight at age three made him an exile in the world of the sighted, and his almost heroic struggle to secure an education sent him into exile—to Bombay from his native Punjab, to the United States, and to England. In describing his experiences, Mehta also gives the reader the flavor of different worlds, including India before and after its partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, Arkansas during segregation, suburban California in the tranquil 1950’s, Oxford before the upheavals of the 1960’s, and the world of blindness.
Continents of Exile is in some ways a sequel to Mehta’s first book, Face to Face (1957). That book, written while Mehta was still an undergraduate, tells the story of his life up to almost the point reached in the seven later volumes. It lacks, however, the breadth, frankness, and detachment of the later volumes. In Continents of Exile, Mehta explores the power of memory. He has discovered that, with the aid of some research, memory yields much more than one might think. He also can analyze his experience with more detachment than his younger self could.
The series begins with biographies of Mehta’s father and mother, Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979). Mehta’s father’s family embraced Western influences, the English language, and an “unsuperstitious” form of Hinduism. Mehta’s mother’s family was more resistant to Western influences, and Mehta’s mother often sought cures through charms and native treatments. In telling the stories of his very different parents and their nevertheless successful marriage, Mehta recalls the world of a close-knit family. He left the family to seek an education. Vedi (1982) and The Ledge Between the Streams (1984) describe Mehta’s childhood, including his first experience of exile at a boarding school for the blind in Bombay and his family’s flight from their home during the chaos following partition.
The next three volumes chronicle Mehta’s education in America and England. In Sound-Shadows of the New World (1985) Mehta recounts his years at the Arkansas School for the Blind. The Stolen Light (1989) takes Mehta to Pomona College in California, where he is a great success and an outsider. Up at Oxford (1993) describes Mehta’s years at Balliol College and sketches portraits of some promising minds he met there.
Slatin, John M. “Blindness and Self-Perception: The Autobiographies of Ved Mehta.” Mosaic 19, no. 4 (Fall, 1986): 173-193.
Sontag, Frederick. “The Self-Centered Author.” New Quest 79 (July-August, 1989): 229-233.